Museum exhibit showcases uniforms of different stripes

Sunday, January 27, 2002

LOWELL, Mass. -- When curator Nancy Rexford began assembling an exhibit of uniforms for the American Textile History Museum, she appealed to the New York City Fire Museum to lend its modern firefighting gear.

But the fire museum didn't have any. On Sept. 11, an off-duty firefighter ripped the exhibit down from the wall and wore it to the World Trade Center, where he was injured by falling debris.

"When I called they had to scramble to get a replacement for us, and as it was, they couldn't come up with a helmet," Rexford said.

The firefighter's outfit and the new helmet that eventually ended up in the exhibit are among dozens of uniforms -- some conventional, some not -- that make up "All for One and One for All!: Uniforms in Fact and Fantasy," which opened Saturday at the Lowell museum.

The exhibit includes U.S. Army uniforms of Secretary of State Colin Powell and Elvis Presley. It has a postal worker's uniform and the costume of Commander William Riker from "Star Trek: The Next Generation." It displays the welding outfit of Rosalie Taggi, a real-life Rosie the Riveter from World War II; Catholic school uniforms; uniforms from the War of 1812, the Civil War and the Vietnam War.

What makes a uniform?

But the show also displays outfits that don't fall squarely into the definition of a uniform, such as a wedding dress, debutante frocks, a nun's habit, a maid's outfit and the lime-green shirt and pants of a McDonald's counter worker dating to the mid-1970s.

Some ensembles definitely aren't standard issue: a raver outfit worn to all-night dance parties, leather biker gear and a carefully embroidered denim skirt worn by a former hippy.

Rexford set out to show that all outfits -- whether worn on the battlefield or the playing field, out of conformity or in rebellion -- say something about the people who wear them.

"What is a uniform?" she said. "The more you talk about it, you realize that the definition has very fluid edges."

The exhibit ends May 27.

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